Sunday, 21 March 2010

So Last-Year: Quilts 1700-2010

Wednesday night was the opening of Quilts 1700-2010 at the V&A. Expectation was high: there's already been an unprecedented amount of advance ticket sales. If you read the piece on crafts I did for Me and the Girl for Clapham's blog on International Women's Day, you'll know that I worked on the accompanying book. I've been living and breathing these objects for the last year and I was both excited and anxious to see the show.

The actual party was a lot of fun. Waiters with aprons decorated with the V&A/Liberty fabrics served a variety of traditionally British dishes. Sue Prichard, the curator, looked fantastically glamorous - in fact in our eagerness to tell her so, we managed to completely ignore Sarah Brown who Sue was trying to lead around the exhibition. Tracey Emin (since reading her biography Strangeland she's one of my favourite females) gave an interesting opening speech in which she successfully evoked the time, craftsmanship and love that have gone into each and every one of these quilts. She did also manage to repeat that love letters were used as the papers in the back of these quilts - Sue has spent a lot of time trying to refute this myth!

But onto the actual exhibition. I'm now so familiar with these objects and their stories I was envious of the people coming to the show with fresh eyes. These quilts are so beautiful and varied in their looks - some of them are so creatively bonkers compared to quilts produced today - that I think you would have some sense of discovery on seeing them for the first time.


The Sundial coverlet is one of my favourite pieces. It's used as the endpapers and on the flap of the book. It uses lots of different fabrics, sewn into individual panels: beautifully printed cottons in the most fabulous colours. In each corner of the quilt, on the blue, is a small map a different part of the country. The maker has stitched herself into a small corner of the eighteenth century.

I also love all the traditional Northumberland and Welsh quilts that gained widespread popularity in the early twentieth century: some were even commissioned for the new wing of Claridges. This star patterned quilt is in the museum's collection and was made in Northumberland.


The main criticism I've heard of the exhibition is that the contemporary quilts look less impressive compared to the older pieces. Certainly all the artists selected play heavily with the associations of the artwork. Maybe because we are used to judging and assessing contemporary art these look less arresting in comparison? Some of the new pieces are beautifully moving. Jennifer Vickers's quilt, for example, uses blank bits of paper sewn together, occasionally with the face of a missing person. It's obviously as laboriously put together as the historic quilts and, in its quiet way, is as emotionally effective.

There's no denying this is an emotional exhibition. I saw several women leaving the exhibition in tears. Partly this is the intimate atmosphere created in the museum. You're able to get really close to the quilts and see the stitches involved. It's also because of the subject matter, the many 'normal' women (and men) whose lives and dramas these quilts have been part of. It's because it seems an accessible skill open to anyone with some fabric, needle and thread and some paper. And out of this simple mix, you can find great beauty.

Will it, as Sue had hoped when putting the exhibition together, convert a new audience to quilt making? Perhaps, but there's no getting away from the fact these pieces are so labour intensive. I've been slaving over a cushion cover for about a year now. You just don't get the instant progress you do with knitting or other crafts.

It does succeed in making you look again, thinking about what you could create, rather than buy, and most importantly give a little pause for thought in our busy lives.

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